$1M donated by New Orleans’ convention center — but labor activists call for much more
By Anthony McAuley
April 22, 2020
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s oversight board on Wednesday approved a donation of $1 million to support programs for “needy hospitality workers due to COVID-19,” which will be split equally between The United Way of Southeast Louisiana and Greater New Orleans Foundation Support Foundation.
The offering of aid comes in the wake of pressure from a coalition led by the hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE, which immediately blasted the offering as insufficient.
In a statement issued after the board vote, the coalition said the grant amounts to barely $10 for each New Orleans hospitality worker, referring to U.S. Department of Labor’s data estimate that about 95,000 people are employed in the city’s bars, hotels, restaurants and other such jobs that make up the sector.
“This amount does not begin to alleviate the uncertainty as we struggle during this crisis,” the statement said. “We were also deeply disappointed that this resolution failed to make a single mention of contracted workers at the convention center.” That referred to the hundreds of workers not directly employed by the the Convention Center but who do a large part of the work involved in putting on conventions, such as catering staff, electricians, audio visual engineers and the like.
The coalition, which includes the local branches of the Teamsters and the International Union of Operating Engineers, as well as a plethora of local activist groups, such as Housing Nola and the left-wing pressure group Indivisible, first called on the Convention Center last month to allot $100 million to New Orleans hospitality sector workers, who have been among the hardest hit by closure and stay-at-home orders by the city to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The statement Wednesday called on Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council to intervene and pledge not to appoint Convention Center board members unless they back a bigger payout to hospitality workers. The mayor appoints three of the center’s 12 board members and all three seats will have new appointments this July.
UNITE HERE’s policy director, Bo Delp, said there had been no response from the Convention Center until last Friday, when the secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America, Sara Steffens, wrote to the center’s president and general manager, Michael Sawaya, threatening to cancel CWA’s planned event at the Convention Center next year unless he resolved the conflict with the union.
The Convention Center has already seen more than half of this year’s events canceled or postponed and the board heard Wednesday from the center’s head of sales and marketing, Tim Hemphill, that many of those scheduled for June through December of this year are uncertain. Based on the events so far canceled, the center is expecting a $38 million hit to its finances this year, which will mean it will have to dip into reserves to cover at least $20 million of expenses.
Walt Leger III, who last month took over as chairman of the board, said Wednesday that the Convention Center’s first priority is to serve as an emergency medical facility for patients who are recovering from COVID19, after Gov. John Bel Edwards last month commandeered the state-controlled facility to provide up to 2,000 patient cubicles to alleviate the burden on area hospitals.
It is currently housing about 100 patients, Leger said, adding that the center also is committed to supporting its nearly 500 direct employees with salary and benefits, which is running at $2 million per month even while the center is bringing in no revenue. By contrast, New Orleans & Co., which the UNITE HERE coalition initially also targeted for contributions to hospitality workers, has laid off a large portion of its workforce and is operating at less than 27% of its normal budget.
In a letter to CWA’s Steffens on Friday, Sawaya also said there is a misunderstanding about how much cash the center has. The UNITE HERE coalition has noted that the center has about $184 million in “unrestricted reserves,” but Sawaya’s letter to Steffens said that much of those funds are earmarked for spending on necessary upgrades to the facility.
“Our plans to reinvest in our facilities and improve is more important now than ever, as we prepare to ensure we are ready to host conferences such as yours in the not too distant future,” Sawaya wrote.
Nonetheless, Leger took time Wednesday to emphasize that the Convention Center has put on hold its ambitious plans to develop around 40 undeveloped upriver acres it owns.
Leger previously has acknowledged criticisms by the Bureau of Governmental Research, a public policy think tank, and others, who have argued that the Convention Center should rethink its project to build a 1,200-room hotel with private developers Matthews Southwest and Darryl Berger, as well as a related plan for an “entertainment district” of housing, retail and cultural venues, until the effect of the pandemic on the city’s hotel and tourism market can be assessed.
“We have at this time halted all negotiations with the proposed developer of a headquarters hotel,” Leger said. On the “entertainment district” project, Leger said, “We have decided at this time not to take any further action on that property…until a time that is more appropriate and until a time that we have an opportunity…(to discuss in face-to-face board meetings) how best to proceed.”
He said a future decision might or might not include some version of the plans that have been put on the table. “But now is not the time for those discussions,” he said.
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